A Uniting Church perspective on Christian unity
The Uniting Church has turned 37. The occasion was marked as part of a full month of multicultural celebrations in June, which culminated on the 22nd with a service of celebration at Town Hall, presided over by the Moderator, the Rev. Dr Brian Brown. The following is the transcript of the message delivered by the Moderator to mark the occasion.
“That all of them may be One”- A Uniting Church perspective on the nature of Christian unity”
Scripture passages for the day: Ezekiel 37:15-28; John 17: 20-26
In the spirit of the prayer of Jesus “That all of them may be one” we have chosen to make our celebration of this year’s Uniting Church Anniversary distinctively Multi-cultural. In this we are being what we claim to be- who we are when we are at our best. In this we are in the spirit of the recent Synod and Assembly meetings, the “Yurora” National Christian Youth Convention, and last week’s Multi-cultural festival, held at the Centre for Ministry. In this, we move from that centre of the church’s life to this centre of
our wider community, for it is ultimately here that we must, in Christ’s name, bear our witness, as he did.
The Christian unity we express here tonight is unity of children and elders, students and teachers, First and Second Australians, Fijians and Tongans, Samoans and Koreans, Australian born and overseas born, women and men, and many more “pairs of sticks” that we could name. We are in fact a sizeable bundle!
What does biblical unity look like? For Ezekiel, envisioning the uniting of the Judean Southerners and the Northerners of Israel, it is like taking two sticks and, instead of using them as weapons to beat one another, holding them together in such a way as to more than double their strength. It is a little bit like taking the two State of Origin Teams, NSW and Queensland, and instead of having them continue to belt the tripe out of each other, let them play together for Australia.
In Christ, biblical unity is described in God’s reaching out not only to Jesus’ current Jewish disciples but to those of all nations who come to follow him, “that all of them may be one”. The writer to the Ephesians expands this to cosmic proportions, extolling the great plan of God in drawing all creation together under Christ.
How does this unity find expression in the church today? I could say “just look around you”! In the Uniting Church we express it by three words that have become part of our core vision: Inclusive (embracing), Generous (expansive) and Courageous (ethical).
Firstly, our unity is an inclusive unity. We take as our Synod theme “Uniting for the Common Good” because in our Synod we embrace a wide range of Christian belief and practice; because we find ourselves in fellowship with others, beyond the church, who do not necessarily share our theology, but are united with us in practice when witnessing to the big common good issues of our day and place. I name these issues as the gap between rich and poor, the risk to all life of climate change due to global warming, and the plight of asylum seekers in a world vulnerable to wars and natural disasters. In this we are in harmony with people of other faiths and philosophies, who embrace as common ground of wisdom the Golden Rule “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. We sing songs such as “All are welcome in this place” and declare that all are free to share the sacrament of Holy Communion at an open table. We seek to embrace and include those who find themselves excluded or marginalized in other parts of society and even other parts of the church. We accept as radically equal, and honour the gifts for ministry of people of both genders, and differing sexual orientation. We serve the God who welcomes the stranger, and in Christ’s name, exercise hospitality as he did.
The compassion of inclusive, embracing unity challenges the cold exclusivity of the purists like the Pharisees of Jesus day. For such “separated ones” it is “my way or the highway”. In saying this I am not criticizing the desire for purity; for did not Jesus himself say “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”. I would though want to make a distinction between the so-called purity that excludes others from its company due to some perceived blemish or inferiority of the other, and purity of heart as understood by Jesus. He taught that it is not what goes into our mouths that contaminates us but what comes out! In other words, it is not those with whom we mix that makes us pure or impure, but the way we treat others who are different. He also taught that love is the highest expression of purity, for God is love, and love is of God.
This observation by journalist and commentator Julia Baird sums it up:
“You can’t help wonder why the church gets so bogged down in doctrine, internal debates and exclusion today; appearing to debate a long list of those who fail, don’t fit and are not welcome. Christianity is at its most powerful when it is at the margins or periphery, not at the centre of power; when it is identified as outsiders and with action, not exclusive clubs”
Secondly, our unity, when we are at our best, is generous in the expansive way described by the prophet Isaiah: “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be spread out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes (Isaiah 54 vs. 2). This generous expansive unity accords with Jesus’ great commission to “make disciples of all nations.” This could be read as “go and make them like us”, or, as I prefer to see it, “share your riches with generosity of Spirit”. The Good News is for everyone. Another way to describe generous, expansive unity is to compare it with its opposite- what I call “constricted unity”. It is like those brave Dutch descendants, later known as Boers, or Afrikaners, who trekked from the Cape region of South Africa in their ox-wagons to escape British domination, only to confront strong African tribes like the Xhosas and the Zulus. When the trekkers camped at night, for protection they would draw their wagons into a tight circle, and rest or fight from within this “Laager”. For them this was a necessity of the situation; but the so-called “laager mentality”, like pharisaism, describes unity that holds itself apart. We sometimes call it border protection! The “laager mentality” later became manifest in the heretical policy of Apartheid, finally brought to an end when two big sticks called Mandela and De Klerk came together to make peace. At times “constricted” or “tight” unity can be absolutely necessary for survival, but it is hardly ethical when used to keep for ourselves what Christ would have us generously share.
My third and final description of Christian unity in Uniting Church ethos is courageous, or ethical unity. It builds on unity that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and generous rather than constricted. It is an important response to the criticism that we are a church where, because we are inclusive and expansive, “anything goes”. It is interesting to note that Jesus and his disciples received similar criticism when they ate with Pharisees and tax-collectors alike, or ministered to prostitutes and the children of religious leaders and Roman officials. As if Jesus did not have high standards! In fact, he told a parable which shows the importance of holding together hospitality and high ethical standards. Matthew records the story of the King who held a wedding banquet for his son. When none of the invited guests agreed to come, he sent his servants into the streets to invite whoever they could find, both good and bad. Such inclusive, generous hospitality! But when the King came in he saw someone who was not appropriately dressed in wedding clothes, and the man was thrown out. That sounds really unfair. Maybe he did not even have time to go home and change! The point is that, while all are welcome, in our unity we are required to be appropriately respectful and just in our dealings with one another. To take just one example, this is why we are ultra-attentive to a policy of Safe Place wherever we gather, and within that, pay particular attention to the safety and wellbeing of children. Beyond our own fellowships, we also care for and take a stand for children who are being treated badly- or anyone else for that matter. In this we are called to be courageous; as the writer to timothy said “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice.”
Are we a church where anything goes? Anything but!
In closing let me say that we face huge and ongoing challenges in being the inclusive, generous and courageous church we are called to be. To be Uniting for the Common good, we have to be united in ourselves- not beating each other up, but holding together in a unity that is stronger than the sum of its parts. We are a people together on the way, centred in Christ, and praying that the Holy Spirit will correct us when we err and constantly renew our life.
I therefore call you now to embrace the way of Jesus as you have never embraced him before. If the Spirit of God has caused something in this celebration to strike a chord in you, take that cord and bind yourself to God anew, or maybe for the first time. I call you, sister and brothers, to shatter any dividing walls and embrace one another, finding ways to resolve arguments and heal differences, so fulfilling the vision of St Paul, that we are all one in Jesus Christ. If you can, do something about it before you go home today. Or, if not, think and pray about at least one step you can take to be in closer unity with others in this body of Christ and in his wider fellowship. Thus united, go and bear witness to the inclusive, expansive and generous Spirit of Jesus, in whose name and for whose sake we are truly one.
Rev Dr Brian Brown